Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Spinning crystals come to "life" in lab

A motion diagram from a computer simulation of
spinning particles.  The different colors reflect the
particles' direction of spin.  Credit: Sharon Glotzer,
University of Michigan.  Image source.
News sources love to exaggerate reports that "life" has been created in a scientific laboratory, and they seem to have done so again this week.  A news report from the University of Michigan has linked an experimental computer simulation of spinning particles to the origin of life.

The original study, published last week in the Physical Review Letters of the American Physical Society, reported on a computer simulation in which two-dimensional, pinwheel-like particles were continuously spun either clockwise or counterclockwise.  The researchers found that, over time, the particles grouped themselves by their direction of spin without the influence of external forces.  Particles spinning in the same direction would get caught on each other, while those spinning in different directions would simply glide past one another, resulting in the tendency of same-spinning particles to cluster.

Apparently, the researchers were investigating ways to get future nanotechnology to assemble itself.  The news stories, however, emphasized a claim by one of the authors that the study may shed light on how the first lifeforms self-assembled.  It seems that the authors envisioned many microscopic crystals spinning from the input of energy, then self-assembling into more complex and lifelike structures.  However, this simulation is a far cry from life.  While the resulting system of spinning particles may have been intricate, it did not have the complexity of life, which unites numerous different features to perform a function.  Furthermore, it does not explain the critical problem of a completely naturalistic origin of life: the origin of information.  Even if the lifeless particles managed to form a fully-functioning life-like cell spontaneously, there would be no information forming by which more could be made.  An informational code system could be created by one of the researchers overseeing the project, but it will never arise spontaneously.

As much as scientists have tried to create spontaneous life in the laboratory, it comes as no surprise to me that they have failed to do so, despite what news headlines may claim.

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